Introduction and Magic Circle

Games, at their best, have the power to create a special space, a world within the world. It's a kind of magic circle where different rules apply.

Inside the magic circle, failure is not only accepted but welcomed. Even necessary. As everyone who has ever played Telestrations knows, failing in a game is not the same thing as failing in real life. In real life, failure can be an unparalleled teacher and a stepping stone to success. But in play? Failure is the whole damned point. Failing does not mean you are bad at being playful. If you are failing and still enjoying yourself, that means you are doing it right. It means the magic circle is protecting you, just as it is supposed to do. There are plenty of factors that can cause that magic circle to fail, though, and we'll be covering many of them in the chapters ahead. Our sensitivities and biases, our fears and recriminations, our past experience and future expectations can all conspire to make even a casual game feel as deadly serious as a job interview after months of desperate unemployment. Much depends on context.

Every time you start a new game, you and your fellow gamers make decisions about how much of the real world will be allowed to come inside the circle.

On one side of the spectrum are, say, professional poker players and other high-stakes gamblers for whom the magic circle is non-existent. The game is literally their life. On the other side of the spectrum are fantasy gamers who meet up at tournaments or gaming conferences to construct collectively elaborate in-game universes, sometimes without ever even learning each other's real-life names. The entire universe they share lies within the magic circle. And when the game ends that universe implodes. Most gamers lie somewhere in between these two extremes with their position on the spectrum being a function of their personality.

The 2 authors’ approaches

Jonathan Kay
My co-author Jonathan is a journalist and former engineer who loves to tease out the patterns that link the abstract world of gaming with real life, even when it comes to controversial subjects. And so he treats the game world more as an intellectual laboratory than an emotional sanctuary and enjoys passing from one side of the circle to the other.
Joan Moriarty
By contrast, my own essays reflect a more protective attitude towards the integrity of the magic circle. I have spent much of my career at Snakes & Lattes amidst many personality types, observing all the differences and the degree to which their enjoyment and, indeed, their sense of self-worth can be ways in threatened when the circle is compromised. Making sure everyone at the table has a good time is not only my job but my duty.
Another difference in approach lies in our research methodology. As a teacher at a board game café, my "research subjects" arrive at my doorstep every day unbidden (and pay my employer for the privilege), Jonathan, on the other hand, has adopted a more conventional shoe-leather approach, interviewing board game designers, visiting gaming tournaments in North America and Europe, reading essays by gaming fans and critics, and playing lots and lots of board games.

The book’s arc patterns how their thoughts evolved

As the book rolls on, the chapters get longer, and the games become more complex. While our early material tends to focus on party games such as Telestrations and nostalgia-soaked titles such as Life and Monopoly, later chapters explore games with heavier themes: zombies, racism, ethnic warfare. In these chapters, Jonathan and I will wrestle with some assumptions we first brought to the writing process. In "Discovering Myself by Invading Belgium," his final chapter, Jonathan turns his gaze inward, explaining how, more than four decades into his life, he finally came to understand the way his brain works following an epic seven-hour war-gaming session at a youth hostel in Copenhagen.
I also use chapters later in the book to confront my own biases and limitations as a gamer (and game teacher). After having spent years observing people playing a popular but intellectually down-market title called Cards Against Humanity, I thought I had a clear sense of that game as an outlet for casual bigotry. And I felt confident in my thoroughly uncharitable assessment of the people who played and enjoyed such games. But, as readers will see in the chapter entitled "Horrible People," the reality is that I had much more to learn about what makes a game welcoming or unwelcoming to players, and I still do.

The beauty and value in play

I have made it my life's purpose to help people rediscover how it feels to be playful, to rehabilitate the value of play and diminish the stigma and fear of failure, to help game players experience the joy of an uncertain outcome, and the exhilaration that comes from throwing yourself into the unknown. I hope that as you read this book, you will enjoy looking at games through my eyes and through Jonathan's. I hope you will find your own reasons to embrace play and make it a part of your life, through both new games and old favorites.